Major spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker follow
The first, hottest, and possibly most predictable take to come out of the initial reactions to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker was that director J. J. Abrams had retconned (a.k.a. reversed) the divisive subversions of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. For the most vicious critics, it seemed as if they took the title of Johnson’s newest movie Knives Out as a coded message on how to eviscerate Episode IX.
This knee-jerk response, unfortunately, takes every choice that Abrams made at face value. That leads to a misread of what his narrative actually does and achieves.
When viewed in the context of a three-act structure, Abrams’ choices are creative fulfillments of the bleak places that Johnson’s Act II took us to.
The “retcon” critique wasn’t just in disparaging reviews; it has also defined the ongoing social media backlash against The Rise Of Skywalker. Rian acolytes who felt that The Last Jedi was The Best Jedi believe that TLJ’s reformations were exactly what the Star Wars saga needed. By contrast, those disgruntled by Johnson’s subversions saw them as betrayals and retcons of their own (from how bitter Luke was portrayed to marginalizing the importance of the Jedi religion).
For two years, admirers of The Last Jedi had to deal with obnoxious haters and their idiotic “Ruin Johnson” bile. Now, the opportunity for revenge against them has been unleashed in a torrential pile-on of disdain.
The internet is overflowing with condescending rips of Abrams, his Rise Of Skywalker finale, and the Last Jedi haters that his finale is overanxious to appease (or so goes the claim of Team Rian advocates). The tensions have broadened into an ongoing proxy war for cultural frustrations and divisions, ones that no pop culture franchise should be burdened to litigate.
The narrative of the renewed toxicity has thus been set: you either love the retcons or you don’t. The problem with that narrative, however, is that retconning is not what J. J. Abrams actually did.
The Rise Of Skywalker takes every dark turn and every lingering, unanswered mystery from The Last Jedi and imbues each one with purpose, design, and meaning. Abrams doesn’t reject the themes and ideas that Johnson raised; he embraces them.
Rian and J. J. aren’t in conflict with each other. They are a Force Dyad.
To make that case in the midst of the dark, toxic haze of the Twittersphere, lets examine a few key instances that Rise detractors cite as retcons. Let’s consider them with less cynicism and, more importantly, in the context of the new trilogy, in how it works within the full 9-episode saga and not merely in some Episode VIII vacuum. When we do, these controversial elements can be rightly seen to actually affirm Rian Johnson’s contributions to the mythos rather “correct” them.
Full confession: I didn’t like many of Rian Johnson’s choices in The Last Jedi . I, too, believed that a course-correction from them was the only possible path to salvage what Johnson had, er, ruined. (You can read those thoughts here.)
Much to my surprise, however, that “only possible path” is not what I saw from Abrams in The Rise Of Skywalker. To my pleasant disbelief, I saw a fulfillment of what Johnson established. As a result, The Rise Of Skywalker has not only changed my mind regarding how I think and feel about The Last Jedi; I now see Episode VIII as absolutely vital.
Let’s take a look at some of the key points of contention, examining how the parallels between the two episodes complete each other rather than contradict.
— REY IS A PALPATINE. This major reveal (the most despised one by Rise haters) explains and fulfills so much of what Johnson raised but left unanswered.
The most important mystery it solves is one that was established on Ahch-To: why was Rey so drawn to the Dark Side while training with Luke? She wasn’t merely tempted by it; Rey instinctively jumped to its presence and what it offered her. As Luke said, she didn’t even hesitate. Rey’s attachment to it was the greatest (and most dangerous) raw power he’d ever seen. This alone validates the Palpatine lineage.
Then, too, it explains Johnson’s greatest contribution to the trilogy: the Force connection between Rey and Kylo Ren. Dubbed a Force Dyad by Abrams, this new expression of the Force is one of such magnitude that it demanded an explanation. Well, Abrams provided one: the two people linked in that Dyad share the most consequential bloodlines of the saga.
That isn’t a cop-out. It’s a substantial culmination for the whole saga.
— REY’S PARENTS WERE SOMEBODY. This is a sub-section of the previous point, but it’s worth highlighting specifically.
In The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren told Rey that her parents were nobodies. He even emphasized that point with a rather crass, cruel manipulation, saying “You come from nothing. You’re nothing.”
Now in Rise Of Skywalker, that changes.
Yes, Rey’s parents are still nobodies, but we learn that their lowly status was by choice rather than by birth. The son of Palpatine (Rey’s father) chose poverty and secrecy over the Dark Side.
This embraces a major recurring theme for the whole saga: Choice vs. Fate.
To have Rey’s parents choose a “nobody” status instead of the fate laid out for them by The Emperor actually fits the very essence, the very ideas, that creator George Lucas explored.
Last Jedi truthers often demand that one statement from an unreliable narrator like Kylo Ren must be accepted blindly as canon without any verification from at least one other reliable source. That is a very big leap. Even in Return of the Jedi, Luke didn’t take Vader’s paternal claim at face value; he had both Yoda and Obi-Wan confirm the truth as well.
If Johnson had verified Kylo’s statement in the same manner, with multiple reliable sources, then gripes of a retcon would carry more weight. But he didn’t, so they don’t.
As a result, Kylo’s Last Jedi claim falls into the more ambiguous category of “from a certain point of view” that Kenobi established in A New Hope. In The Last Jedi, that “certain point of view” came from the villain, no less, who was trying to turn Rey to the Dark Side.
— KYLO’S HELMET. Here’s the most nitpicky of all the gripes about Rise Of Skywalker, and also the most nonsensical.
The reassembly of Kylo’s helmet isn’t some whiny take-back by Abrams; it’s a layered metaphor of where Kylo has come to and come from.
For one, as I said in my review, Kylo’s reassembling of his shattered helmet from The Last Jedi in no way nullifies the point that Snoke made about it, i.e. that it is jsut the front of a poser, of a guy who, deep down, is just a “child in a mask.” That still holds true. It is a false identity that Kylo is hiding behind.
And secondly, because it was Snoke who mocked the helmet — i.e. the leader whom Kylo despised so much that he killed him — it makes complete sense that Kylo would reassemble the visage that Snoke had so maliciously ridiculed.
If killing Snoke was Kylo’s first act of asserting his own identity and power, then soldering his mask back together completes that assertion. It is a declaration of identity, a final act of defiance towards Snoke.
And strategically, it’s a message to Palpatine, too, who was Snoke’s puppet master.
— LUKE’S LIGHTSABER CATCH. One thing that many people despised about Rian Johnson’s episode was his portrayal of Luke Skywalker, and the one moment that fully epitomized it was the very first one: when Luke flippantly tossed his lightsaber aside.
That, for many, was an act of heresy.
That little bit of comic relief was also the Jedi master’s complete rejection of his religion. It was nothing short of a sacrilegious act, one that many Star Wars fans felt was something that Luke would never do, no matter how dark of a place he may have gone to.
Jump ahead to The Rise Of Skywalker, when Rey is at her lowest point and ready to give up. In that moment, she also throws that lightsaber away, into a blazing fire…only for Force Ghost Luke to emerge from that fire to catch the lightsaber, save it, and hand it back to Rey. Then he adds the chastising zinger: “A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect.”
Hooooo boy, did that piss off Last Jedi devotees.
They took Luke’s statement as a direct F.U. from Abrams to Johnson, but that is such a contemptuous assumption. On the contrary, Luke’s line to Rey only strengthens and substantiates his previous saber toss.
What Abrams does so beautifully is place those two moments at the opposite ends of Luke’s final trilogy arc. In The Last Jedi, Luke wasn’t just depressed or resigned in that moment. He had been completely closed himself off from the Force, something that Rey had noticed and literally called him out on. That is the Luke who tossed the lightsaber. Of course that’s what he would have done; he wanted the Jedi to die. The tossing of the lightsaber embodies that, rather boldly, in one action.
Now, with one line of dialogue to Rey in Rise, Luke exemplifies his full return to the Good Side, a return that began in Rian Johnson’s finale when Luke declared to Kylo that he wouldn’t be the last Jedi. And so this moment for Luke, and his line, is Abrams completing the arc that Johnson had set in motion; it’s not giving it a middle finger.
In fact, Rian Johnson had already subverted his own subversion before Abrams did.
In the finale of The Last Jedi, Johnson had both Chosen Ones (Luke and Rey) save the day. He embraced the importance of their archetypes within the mythos. He didn’t reject, redefine, or even marginalize them.
Last Jedi defenders love to reference Kylo Ren’s quote “Let it all die.” They also admire Dark Luke’s secularism. That’s where they wanted Episode IX to go.
But before Abrams even had his say in Episode IX, Johnson completed Episode VIII by rejecting that path. His film declares that some things from the past — the most important things, the good things, the eternal things — should never die.
Luke’s line to Rey in Rise about a Jedi’s weapon? It exemplifies that very ethos.
— LINEAGE DOES NOT DEFINE A JEDI. One of the ideas introduced in The Last Jedi is the notion that anyone can become a Jedi if so inspired. Its powers and potential is not restricted for those who are “chosen” or that are of an elite bloodline.
Detractors of Rise Of Skywalker feel that Rey’s Palpatine lineage reverses all of that, and that it doubles down on the importance of elite family lineage. (Some have argued that The Last Jedi proposed a full democratization of the Force, but that perspective seemed to conveniently cherry pick from Luke’s dark, misguided angst and personal guilt while ignoring his re-embrace of the Jedi Order at the end).
This, like the previous complaints cited, seems nonsensical on its face, as if the prequels never existed.
This is not an either/or situation. It never has been.
As long as there have been Jedi, they have come from all races, species, and walks of life. Chosen Ones are rare, very rare. They are not constants. They emerge only in times of extreme crisis. As such, having Rey be a Palpatine does not promote or cement an elitist perspective.
Yes, lineage is important because identity is important. It is for Rey as it is for anyone. The two things — lineage and identity — are intertwined at the very heart of Star Wars; they have been core thematic signifiers for over forty years.
Even so, while lineage can define us, Luke wisely tells Rey in Rise of Skywalker, “There are things stronger than blood.” In that one single statement, Abrams allows Luke to sum up and affirm what The Last Jedi was all about.
Choices; that’s what’s stronger than blood.
Choices are stronger than fate, too, even for Chosen Ones.
The Chosen One archetype isn’t a solo act; it’s a leader to many. Leaders don’t nullify other people or their gifts. On the contrary, with their own gifts and powers, leaders inspire others to fulfill theirs.
A great example of that: Rey serving as an inspiration for the Broom Kid slave at the end of Last Jedi. Rey gave him and his friends someone (and something) to aspire to.
Contrary to what many Last Jedi diehards argue, Broom Kid did not symbolize a rejection of a Chosen One. He didn’t embody the misguided belief that the Jedi should die. Broom Kid represented a resurrection of The Jedi Order, as it once was, if properly led.
One other alleged retcon is the lack of screen time for Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran, and most opinions on that matter seem to assume the worst about Abrams’ motives. This is the most subjective aspect being argued. Therefore, nothing is likely to change anyone’s mind about that.
You either think Rose “deserved better” or that she was treated fairly as a supporting character who had just been introduced in the middle episode (or eighth of nine episodes, for that matter). Regardless, what shouldn’t be lost is that Rose Tico indeed had a vital role in Episode VIII, and that’s a great thing. That will never change and, years from now, that’s what will be appreciated.
Abrams even put a button on some wonderful, non-controversial seeds that Johnson had planted, like the underwater X-Wing at Ahch-To. Not only did he find an ingenious use for that, but Abrams did it in a way that brought Luke’s biggest failure on Dagobah full circle, making for a sweet personal redemption.
But the most satisfying fulfillment? Leia Organa: Jedi Master!
What an absolute thrill to see Rey serving as an apprentice to the daughter of Skywalker. My heart leaped. While this payoff was long overdue, it was made credible by the awesome displays of the Force that Rian Johnson imagined for Leia. Without them, seeing Leia serve in the role of Jedi Master (while possible) would’ve felt like a reach.
In addition to these specific examples, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t Abrams’ job to simply complete and adhere to Johnson’s story. The sun didn’t rise and fall on this final trilogy with Episode VIII. Abrams is completing his episode as much as Rian’s and, more broadly, an entire nine episode mythos, one founded on the circular tenets of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Anakin and Luke were nobodies (even orphans of a sort) who became somebodies by virtue of their lineage. Each had a destiny forged for them within their bloodline. However, it was their very different choices that ultimately steered their fates.
And now in the last three episodes, through both her bloodline and her choices, Rey completes that Three Trilogy structure.
Could it have been done differently? Sure, and I actually posited a way two years ago of how J. J. could fulfill Rey’s “nobody” heritage while still making her lineage vital. (You can read that here.) I’d even be so bold as to suggest that my way is better than Abrams’ (or, at least, less problematic given the current divide). I think it honors the “nobody” status that Rian established while still embracing both the spirit and the law of the Lucas myth.
But even if it does, that doesn’t invalidate what J. J. chose, and it certainly doesn’t make J. J.’s choice a retcon. It’s simply a different choice, one that adheres to Rian’s text while also fulfilling the underlying narrative and archetypal fabric of Lucas’s first two trilogies.
Folks, this doesn’t have to be an “either / or” situation. It can be a “both / and.”
Correction: it is a both / and. That’s exactly what Abrams made it.
Most importantly, consider how this entire saga began: with the (in)Sidious defeat of the Jedi and the overthrow of the galaxy by a Palpatine. Who better to bring balance back to it all (and at the very end) than a Palpatine as well?
It’s fair to not like some (or any) of Abrams’ choices, but we must be fair about what those choices are and are not. As with Rey’s heritage, there are other ways that Abrams could’ve resolved the other cliffhangers of The Last Jedi. The options are endless. That’s the reality of any creative endeavor on this scale.
Nevertheless, the answers that Abrams chose — like them or not — aren’t a course-correction. They are a completion.
In the arc of a well-told story, the best Second Acts take you to the darkest places that you never thought a story could go or possibly come back from, including the betrayal of heroes and their ideals. The best Third Acts, then, somehow pull off that miracle, and do it with credibility and meaning.